I focused on metrics a lot in 2014, but what better time than the New Year to reexamine how we measure success in creating cohesive, comprehensive and truly global workplace strategies?
My first encounter with the challenges of creating corporate design standards occurred in the late ’80s while I was working for an American investment bank. With mergers and acquisitions in full swing, standards were seen a way to control costs, minimize inventory and create a unified identity for a firm. Part of my job was to present options to branch managers from a fairly rigid set of specifications within one of three schemes: blue for the Northeast, green for the South and khaki for the West/Southwest. I’d chuckle when a manager would choose the scheme that matched his tie, but that was a good day; all too often he would “make a call” to the divisional officer and I’d be instructed to customize the offering—which defeated the program’s mission to bring visual continuity to the firm and add complexity to the project. Working with newly acquired branches was even trickier. When merging the standards of two companies that, prior to acquisition, had been direct competitors, it was hard enough to change signage, let alone impose the culture of one company on another.
Fast-forward a few years to Hong Kong, where I was waiting for furniture to arrive on what was, quite literally, a slow boat to China—only to find out that once it got there, people stored their fools-cap binders in cabinets, not the hanging files that had been ordered from North America. And the construction budget had a new (to me) and very important line item: Feng Shui. This meant that we had to add fish tanks and mirrors to the side of the trading floor that didn’t face the “good joss” harbor, and move the trading area from the 14th floor to the 13th—after all the mechanical and electrical drawings had been completed—because the Chinese consider “4” to be a very unlucky number. I had quite a learning curve to overcome during my first week on the job, and there were many more surprises to come.
When in Rome
But for many companies, not much has changed since the ’80s. The other day a British friend and former colleague, now the director of a global furniture manufacturer, recounted a meeting in the U.K. between her client, the British global sourcing lead for a North American company, and her North American sales colleague: “I was never made more aware of the cultural divide that still exists,” my British friend commented. “The easiest way to explain it is to say that neither person is comfortable in the other’s environment and just longs for familiar things from home.”
“When in Rome” may be wise words to travel by, but when it comes to creating global standards, something often gets lost in the translation. Despite globalization, most standards programs are still implemented from the perspective of headquarters without sufficiently taking into account that the rest of the country—and the world—simply does not work in the same way. And people resent that because, let’s face it, however well-motivated the business proposition of creating standards may be, the process of implementing standards implies not only change, but a degree of conformity that can be difficult for people to accept without some consideration of—or concession to—how things work in their world. For instance, I can recall thinking, back in the ’80s, that a few more options in the branch program might have meant fewer calls to the divisional office. And in Hong Kong, I knew that just a little more research into local customs could have saved a lot of time, money and last-minute accommodation. All of which indicates that, in order to get more conscription, one might have to provide more, not less, choices and latitude in the decision-making process.
Take another look
In the 2013 report Welcome to the Human Era, two Boston-based branding experts—John F. Marshall, senior partner and global director of strategy for the branding and design firm Lippincott, and Graham Ritchie, executive vice president and chief strategy director for the advertising agency Hill Holliday—write that “the life expectancy of an S&P 500 company has dropped from 75 years in 1937 to 15 years today.” That means that the reality of business today is that companies must stay current. As we’re increasingly witnessing, business models that stayed the same well into the 20th century are now undergoing upheavals. So it might make good business sense, where standards are concerned, to focus more on flexibility and less on uniformity. Using universal parameters to set boundaries instead of mandating one-size-fits-all perimeters can accomplish both by allowing locals more discretion in creating their workplace.
This is not an abdication of standards, but rather a call for greater cohesion among corporations’ global sourcing entities and their increasingly outsourced real estate providers, and a willingness to look at standards from a different perspective. When we look at the reasons standards were created in the first place—to save money, increase agility and convey the image of the brand—then standardization becomes less a matter of physical elements—like those three color schemes I had to work with in the ’80s—and more a process by which key financial, operational and cultural objectives are best served. This could mean creating a universal envelope with branding elements that also incorporate local nuances, as well as streamlining design and purchasing processes with guidelines and pre-approved vendors but allowing local experts to apply them according to local customs and regulations. Ultimately, this means finding new metrics to utilize, such as the frequency, time and cost of churn; customer-satisfaction scores and attract-and-retain statistics.
Fran Ferrone is director of Mancini – Duffy's Center for Workplace Innovation in New York City.